Thursday, October 1, 2015
a kind of antidote
James Carroll wrote this article for The New Yorker:
POPE FRANCIS AFTER AMERICA
----------------------- It ought to have been impossible for Pope Francis to top himself, but in coming to the United States last week he did. In one posturing-free appearance after another, from the White House to the plane ride back to Italy, the pontiff showed himself to be an exemplar of what can only be called democratic liberalism, springing whole from the heart of an unlikely Roman Catholicism.
On a host of issues, he simplified complicated questions without trivializing them.
To a confused and demoralized public realm, he declared that responsible and creative action is not only necessary but possible.
He transformed the banalities of American media merely by being their subject. And of global policies that kill, torture, starve, and debase,
Francis said quite plainly: Stop.
No rock star, no President, no Secretary-General of the United Nations could do what the Pope is doing -- and there's the point.
Despite the broad secular assumption that the sun has set on the age of the papacy,
the Vatican remains deeply integrated into the DNA of Western culture itself, with implicit significance for many people, whether they know it or not.
The Holy See, with its "names, battle slogans, and costumes," in Karl Marx's phrase, is the last vestige of Christendom, the only surviving element of that religious, political, and artistic fusion to be found outside the world's museums. As the custodian of that legacy,
the Pope draws on the energy of a hidden and ancient current.
But what Francis has done is to turn that energy against itself.
In effect, the papacy is this Pope's foil.
Ever since the thirteenth-century pontiff Innocent III began calling himself the Vicar of Christ, preferring that title over the more modest Successor of Peter, Popes have been regarded as claiming a place, in Innocent's words, "between God and man, lower than God, but higher than man."
Kings knelt before Popes; crusades were launched by Popes; the calendar was redefined by a Pope; Latin America was divided between Spain and Portugal by a Pope.
But such worldly sway paled in comparison to the Pope's otherworldly authority, his real source of clout. The Pope could send a soul, any soul, to Hell.
As Boniface VIII declared, in 1302, "It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." Of course,
the ages of reformation and revolution obliterated such claims for those outside the Church. But, inside it, the Pope's spiritual authority was emphasized more than ever:
it was only in 1870 that he was declared to be infallible. For Catholics, he still stood guard over the gates of Hell.
Pope Francis embodies the mercy of a God with whom few, if any, believers still associate threats of eternal damnation. The dread of Hell on which the papacy so long staked its claim to power is gone: good riddance.
That means that "salvation" no longer defines the content of Christian hope as it once did, any more than secular hope dreams of being saved from perdition.
Believers, like all contemporary people, wrestle instead with the threat of meaninglessness, the elusiveness of purpose and moral order, especially in the face of suffering.
In truth, for many believers, the here weighs more than the hereafter. The lack of intellectual and emotional coherence in the present world can hollow out all rational wishing for any imagined world to come. One wants a new gospel to read, "In the beginning was meaning, and meaning was with God, and meaning was God."
The empathy of Francis is so large as to seem itself a kind of antidote
to this toxic sense of displacement. At the U.N., he changed the global discussion of the crisis of migrants and border-crossers with a few words: "We must not be taken aback by their numbers but, rather,
view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can."
In decrying today's "growing and steady social fragmentation," he addressed the visceral dread, which is shared across boundaries of class, nationality, education, and religion, that in some way
all of us have been carried off by forces beyond our control,
to a terrible exile
of market values,
information overload, digital loneliness, impoverished commonwealth,
and broken systems of justice.
Formerly settled questions are being upended; our politics lacks a shared narrative; our entertainment infantilizes us; our media leaves us enervated.
It is Francis, we suddenly sense, who sees the truth of our situation, and who, with compassion instead of shaming, is showing it to us.
--------------------------- [end, first 65% of Carroll's article]